Hurricane Harvey heralds the ‘new normal’

TU researchers who studied the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Houston presented their findings last Thursday. “We have to prepare for extreme events because they do happen.”

Marines Corps reservists work with members of the Texas State Guard and Texas Highway Patrol to pull Marine Corps combat rubber raiding craft through a flooded street in Houston, Aug. 31, 2017, while supporting Harvey relief efforts.

In a video message, Professor Sam Brody (A&M University and Director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores) gave a short resume. “What turned Harvey into a disaster was 70-100 centimetres of rain on a low-lying clay-based template on one of the most vulnerable places in the US. Population growth has resulted in the spread of impermeable surfaces and building near the reservoirs. With the available funding, we need to rebuild smarter and more resilient.”

Dale Morris, Senior Economist at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, added that Hurricane Harvey reflected the ‘new normal’: “Hundred year floods now occur every 20-30 years.”

Prof. Bas Jonker chaired the DIMI meeting. (Photo:TU Delft/Roy Borghouts)

The TU Delft has had ties with the Houston region and A&M and Rice Universities since 2012. Two years ago, Delft researchers presented an adapted version of the Dutch Delta waterworks to protect the Galveston Bay area from hurricane-related flooding. Now that the flooding came from extreme rain instead of from the Gulf, it only seemed logical that TU Delft researchers set up a Harvey research team in early September. The initiative was supported by DIMI (Deltas, Infrastructures & Mobility Initiative) and the Delft Safety & Security Institute (DSyS).

Researchers Kasper Lendering, Nikki Brand, Antonia Sebastian and Baukje Kothuis. (Photo: TU Delft/Roy Borghouts)

Six weeks of 24/7 work later, four researchers presented the preliminary Harvey Hurricane Report last Thursday. Dr Antonia Sebastian showed what flood management systems are already operational in Houston. The city is continuing to grow, making it more vulnerable to extreme weather events. Kasper Lendering presented an inventory of the damage. Over 100,000 homes have been affected, and half a million cars were drowned. The total damage is estimated at 150 billion dollars, making Harvey one of the top-five most costly natural disasters in the US. Nikki Brand analysed the urban fabric and land use policies. She concluded that Houston, the monster that ate Texas, does very little spatial planning and zoning. As a result, the urban sprawl spreads into areas that are prone to flooding. Baukje Kothuis presented the results of the Harvey hackathon in which 80 students worked in 2-hour blocks on 15 topics to get data from all available online sources on Harvey’s impact. They assembled the results in maps and a timeline.

The discussion, led by Professor Bas Jonkman, unveiled cultural differences between Americans and the Dutch. After the 1953 flooding, the Dutch invested huge sums of money to prevent similar events from happening. The Dutch feel safe behind the dikes and have delegated their safety to the hands of the government. Texans like to keep their governments as small as possible, which makes it hard to raise funds for large communal infrastructure.

Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Class Richard Call and members of New Jersey Task Force 1, assist evacuees displaced by Hurricane Harvey into a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle to during water rescue operations in Wharton, Texas, Aug. 31, 2017. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Robert Shelley

On the other hand, Americans are more self-reliant, and they take measures to minimise the damage to their homes if the water rises. Plus, unlike during Katrina, disaster relief was well organised. Disaster response in the US seems readier for action than in the Netherlands where people are hardly aware of any danger living below the sea-level and don’t prepare for emergencies.

So, while Houstonians should find ways to make their city more sustainable and resilient, the Dutch should become aware that extreme events do occur and that the government is not almighty. More research will follow.

Science editor Jos Wassink

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